At Bullard, an injection molder of protective headgear, management almost needed to wear its molded helmets when facing employees protesting its move to lean manufacturing.
The company made the decision to go lean in 1995. Bullard shuffled its 17 injection presses into standardized work cells, cut back dramatically on inventory and warehouse space and even closed one of two manufacturing buildings at its Cynthiana, Ky., headquarters.
The response from supervisors and plant workers was unexpected, said molding technology manager Mark Ferguson, speaking Sept. 17 at Plastics Encounter Indianapolis.
``There was a great fear of change,'' Ferguson said. ``People knew we'd be changing the culture and they didn't want to leave what they knew. Producing lean was very different.''
Lean manufacturing won't work here, employees said. It is the flavor of the month, fleeting and a fad. There was a growing lack of trust in management that lean techniques could be executed. Employee turnover rose.
Bullard has changed workers' minds about lean thinking, Ferguson said. The 103-year-old company, which Ferguson said was struggling to survive, has seen sales more than double while reducing manufacturing costs and waste in equally dramatic fashion.
Lean can be as difficult a concept to implement and use as it is to understand, several speakers said at a lean-management session at the show. But it also can pay off in big ways once skeptics come around, said Alan Gross, operations director at injection molder Webster Plastics Inc. in Fairport, N.Y.
Webster, another company that had grappled with growth challenges, identified what Gross calls ``the seven deadly wastes'' at its 75,000-square-foot facility. They were overproduction, waiting, downtime, transporting products, inventory, unnecessary motion and defective items.
Webster took corrective action, creating a plant layout with flexible manufacturing cells. While grouping machines into logical clusters and automating molding and materials feeding, Webster changed its focus. It now uses a visual, pull-signal demand system where work is moved to a manufacturing cell only when it is needed before shipping to customers.
In addition, the molder took away a more-layered, supervisory approach by forming project teams that constantly evaluate operations and take action. About 20 percent of its employees also act as auditors to monitor production waste at their workstations.
The company estimates that it has saved about $2.9 million a year since 1998 and reduced inventory by a gaping 67 percent in that period. Webster recently won an Industry Week magazine award for having one of the best plants in North America.
``We're 10 years into our lean journey,'' Gross said. ``Our experience with delivery and lead times has been outstanding.''
That experience also has been rewarding to Pleasant Precision Inc., a Kenton, Ohio, toolmaker and supplier of Round Mate Systems mold inserts. As with Bullard, the rewards came with some early baggage in the form of resistance from workers, said President Ron Pleasant.
Some of the tenets that Gross brought up - especially the need to move machines and take away some one-person supervisory duties - led to a protest at Team PPI, as the company is called.
Pleasant said that employees told him they could make mold inserts in five days, so why change? But Pleasant fired back, asking them if they could do that every time, all the time. The answer was no, and that fueled PPI's move to switch to a lean manufacturing system.
But Pleasant also had to make a guarantee to workers. They would attempt the machine repositioning for one month. If the numbers did not prove the system successful, the company would move the machines back to their original places, he said.
He also guaranteed that workers would be included in all discussions. Some of the supervisors even went though a series of lunch-time seminars on lean manufacturing, complete with nongraded quizzes. And Pleasant said on-the-fly adjustments to the cells could be made by team members.
Still, there were those who took other tactics to preserve their long-held processes, Pleasant said. One team formed what Pleasant called a ``sneaker cell,'' running off to produce the Round Mate parts on other equipment when Pleasant was not looking. Still, in the end, Pleasant's point that costs could be saved and the company could become more competitive proved correct, he said.
``We had at least $5,000 in costs a month that we could take out,'' Pleasant said. ``But there were plenty of excuses not to do it. It was a struggle.''
In eight months of lean manufacturing, PPI has made significant progress. Lead times have been cut from four weeks to an average of two days. Finished-goods inventory has shrunk from $414,7000 in stock to about $92,700, Pleasant said. And the company has freed about 2,500 square feet of manufacturing space.
Bullard faced some additional problems. Two plants located 80 miles apart both were operating far below capacity. The facilities had no work cells, no project teams, a languid, six-week lead time on nonstock products and a low 60 percent on-time delivery average. Sales were stuck at around $23 million annually, and the company was struggling, Ferguson said.
It found some answers at the nearby University of Kentucky Center for Robotics and Manufacturing Systems, where training was available in automation and eliminating waste from plants. Management started implementing such tools as standardized work cells, flow manufacturing and kaizen teams charged with cutting waste.
``People become the base foundation,'' Ferguson said. ``Each team set its own goals and tried to reach them. Some customers were impressed that we could send product to the docks for shipping in one day.''
Some workers felt threatened by the system. Others were skeptical, believing Bullard would fall back to old patterns, Ferguson said.
Now Bullard is a model for a lean diet, a Slimfast of manufacturing. Other companies visit the plant to view what has happened to the helmet and safety-system producer, Ferguson said.
Company sales have risen to about $56 million annually without a major boost in employees or manufacturing space. The firm has the same number of employees today, 300, as it did in 1995. And it closed the second plant a few years ago, offering those employees jobs at the first plant.
Lead times have been cut from six weeks to 3.7 days and the company now delivers 92 percent of its products on time, Ferguson said.
``At first, the old guard did not want to change, and a supervisor did not want to become a team leader working on the floor with a group of people,'' Ferguson said. ``But that approach has made a big difference.''